Category Archives: Reports

Leinster Quarterly Meeting, June 2016

The theme of Leinster Quarterly Meeting, which was held in Enniscorthy on 25th June, was “Go and Do Likewise” (Luke 10: 25-37), following on from the theme of Ireland Yearly Meeting 2016: “Who is My Neighbour?”

Ian Woods of Dublin Preparative Meeting talked about how ‘doing likewise’ – being compassionate and caring for our neighbour – could be done both on an individual and corporate basis.  He asked if we needed to coordinate the efforts of the various funds and committees to address the needs of those who are marginalised both at home and abroad. He also stressed the need to ensure that any investments held were ethical. He said that, while we can act individually and donate to worthy causes, we also need to look at how we can act collectively as a Religious Society to address inequality and poverty.

Jonathan Pim talked about various projects supported by Irish Friends, including  the Alternatives to Violence Project and the development of the visitor centre at Wheatfield Prison. He also spoke about the work of Irish Quaker Faith in Action,  which supports many projects such as Christian Aid’s work in Zimbabwe and Jubilee House in West Uganda. Quaker Cottage in Ulster has done tremendously important work and continues to support individuals, families and communities.

While contributing to these funds gives us a good feeling and is, itself, important, Jonathan challenged us to reflect on whether we do enough in our own lives to ‘go and do likewise’.

Are we using our talents and gifts to their fullest extent for the benefit of others? Do we step outside our comfort zone to help others or do we just content ourselves with a monetary donation to good causes?

A full report may be read here >> Report on LQM June 2016

Ireland Yearly Meeting 2016 overview

Ireland Yearly Meeting 2016 challenged Friends to consider the question “Who is my neighbour?”

The quotation from Quaker Life and Practice which underpinned the theme further probed participants – “How can we, such a small insignificant group of people as the Society of Friends help to stem the tide of evil and hate, and greed and fear that is so wide-spread in the world today?”  (C Winifred Lamb, c.1954, QL&P 4.13).

Such a topical theme was very welcome, and it was addressed throughout the three days in the business sessions, interest groups and public lecture.

Marisa Johnson, FWCC-EMES Secretary
Marisa Johnson, FWCC-EMES Secretary

Marisa Johnson, Executive Secretary of the Europe and Middle East section of Friends World Committee for Consultation, presented the Ministry and Oversight session on the first evening with the intriguing title ‘The Gift of Conflict’.

Will Haire
Will Haire, South Belfast Meeting

Will Haire of South Belfast Meeting delivered the public lecture titled ‘Who is my neighbour? What is our testimony on inclusion?’

Andrew Lane from the Quaker Council for European Affairs addressed the question ‘Who is my Neighbour in Europe?’ and there were several speakers on the topic of homelessness in Ireland.

IYM agreed to publish a statement on homelessness, and to write letters to politicians and to newspapers both sides of the border, calling for the provision of good quality social housing.

IYM also made a resolution to become “as sustainable as possible”, with each Meeting asked to prepare a sustainability plan before the end of the year.  A commitment was also made to develop an investment strategy by January 2017 to ethically invest all funds within Yearly Meeting in sustainable and peaceful companies, and to divest from destructive industries, including fossil fuels.

For the first time during a Yearly Meeting in Ireland, there were regular updates on IYM’s Facebook and Twitter and Friends who use social media were encouraged to like, comment, share and tweet.

Read the full IYM 2016 Report by Pleasunce Perry of Frederick Street Meeting, Belfast, and Robert Foulkes of Cork Meeting.

 

 

 

 

Ulster Quarterly Meeting – Feb 2016

The theme for discussion at Ulster Quarterly Meeting, which took place in Frederick Street Meeting House, Belfast, on 20th February 2016 was ‘Are we sitting on our laurels?’

Prior to discussion on the topic, Stephen Moore, the recently appointed Principal of Friends’ School Lisburn, gave his first report to Ulster Q.M.

He said he was aware of the great responsibility he had taken on but thankful that the challenge had been entrusted to him. He reminded those present of the many past successes of the school, including the united aim of teachers and pupils to strive to achieve greater things.

A full report may be read here >> Ulster Quarterly Meeting Feb 2016 report.

 

Report on Ireland Yearly Meeting 2015

REPORT ON IRELAND YEARLY MEETING 2015

For the second time in three years Ireland Yearly Meeting [IYM] was held in a new venue. This year we met in Dromantine Conference and Retreat Centre, Newry, Co Down, in Northern Ireland. Set above a lake, surrounded by rolling grassy areas and woodlands, the building was a comfortable and compact centre. Many Friends enjoyed walking in the peaceful grounds, enjoying the summer-like weather which was with us for most of our stay. We welcomed Friends from Britain, German and France Yearly Meetings as well as eleven Friends from America. We were pleased to be joined also, by representatives from other churches, and the Baha’i Faith.

The theme for the weekend was ‘ Knowing God’s Creation – I have taught you wisdom and the right way to live. Nothing will stand in your way if you walk wisely and you will not stumble when you run.’ Proverbs 4:11-12. This was the inspiration for the daily readings, many of which were poems. Bible Study, Worship Sharing and Epilogue gave opportunities for exchange of thoughts and wisdom.

In the Ministry and Oversight Session on Truth, we heard the story of the wise man and Saint Peter. When the casket of Truth was dropped by the wise man at the gates of heaven, people rushed to pick up the pieces, but they didn’t realise that none of them had the whole truth….they only had a part of it. Early Friends were called the Friends of Truth, and the testimonies of honesty and integrity remain important to us. In journalistic circles, truth can be slippery! Do we really treat all people equally, even those we find difficult? Do we live as though God has the power to lead us? Can we accept our part if difficulties arise? Jury service is a time of seeking for the truth, and through prayer, searching for guidance to make the right decision. ‘The truth will set you free.’ John 8:14. The Bible was the source of truth for early Friends, but not the truth in itself. Love comes before truth. If all the world’s religions were placed in a circle, some would be opposite each other. With God in the centre, as the religions move closer to God, they move closer to each other.

Eco Congregation Ireland is now ten years old. The Christian calling is to nurture and care for creation. Coming from different churches to work together for the care of God’s creation, is natural ecumenism. The vision of the Foinse Project [meaning ‘source’], is to establish a field study and scientific research centre in Leitrim/Fermanagh/Cavan counties. By using tourism and accommodation centres out of season, they envisage a light footprint. There is pride in the local community that others want to study their area. It will involve three administrative authorities working together; from the North and South of Ireland and also America. Yearly Meeting agreed to support this project. A film made by young people in Fermanagh, showed what the consequences would be if fracking was allowed in their area. If the pastoral environment and current means of livelihood are to be conserved, this also requires co-operation between authorities North and South.

Irish Quaker Faith in Action [IQFA] is both a fund-distributing, and a service, committee. They are glad to hear of activities, both at home, or abroad, suitable for their support. Christian Aid is one of these. Established seventy years ago, they work to change an unjust world. Our actions fail to show a belief we realize we are equal. Three Planet Earths would be needed to sustain a world as consuming of fossil fuels as Ireland is. We must share the fruits of the earth. Every family has the right to be at the table. While we must give, act and pray, there is no point in giving a fisherman a net when there are no fish in the water, because of pollution from a foreign enterprise up stream, which is not paying proper wages or taxes. We heard of Christian Aid’s work in Kenya and saw a film of work in Brazil. People are asked what their requirements are, and then empowered to develop self-help community projects.

In 1693 William Penn wrote of a united Europe, but where states would maintain sovereignty over their own affairs. Quaker Council for European Affairs [QCEA] is thirty six years in existence. Though modern means of communication are used, our current representative gets up at two a.m. to reach Brussels in time for the three p.m. meetings; because of the value in making contacts, as well as the business carried out. The opportunity is there for Irish Friends to have much more input into QCEA, and its influence in European Union [EU] policies. Concern was expressed about the outcome of the pending trade agreement between Europe and America.

One of our ecumenical visitors said they were looking forward to the outcome of our discussions on Neutrality at YM…..We agreed to support Western Regional Monthly Meeting in their concern about the use of Shannon Airport by United States military aircraft. Limerick Friends try to have a representative present at the monthly Peace Vigils held at Shannon.

A film was shown called ‘Waiting and Silence’. Made by a member of Coleraine Meeting, it is aimed at ‘the curious’. Outreach was the subject for one of the Interest Groups and was led by two brothers. One said,’ IYM copes by being nice to each other. Do we have a united message?’ Christ’s message was ‘to go into the corners of the world transforming’. The other brother told us of many ways to get our message across. Some Meetings have a website, one has a Facebook page, but technology has its limitations.

Further discussion on Membership took place, following the setting up of the Purposes and Priorities Working Group [PPWG] to enquire into the spiritual life of our Religious Society. The outcome of considerations at Preparative Meeting level appeared to be that there was a need for commitment. While the ‘weighty Friend’ has a value, new Members should value their upbringing outside the Society.

The Public Lecture, given by Alastair McIntosh – which is to be available in due course on DVD – was a challenge to many, in many ways. ’To be the People of the Cross- Climate Change, Violence and some Meanings of Creation in Our Times’. Climate Change is one of the major concerns, is happening, is very serious, and is brought about by human actions. Too much greed, not too many people. Sustainable living allows for future generations to live.  ‘I have given them fountains of living water, but they build cracked cisterns that hold no water at all’ Jeremiah 2:13. Alastair referred to his Scottish Presbyterian upbringing on the Isle of Lewis, and to the abundance of spiritual mystical experiences. He led us through events leading to the death of Jesus on the Cross; how different people acted- Mary Magdalene, Peter, Simon of Cyrene, and Joseph of Arimathea- and the consequences of their actions. Jesus never taught a ‘just war’. God would rather die than kill. So Jesus accepted the Cross.

‘Living the Transformation – Creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of God’s children.’ [Romans 8:19] will be the theme of the FWCC Gathering next January in Peru. As well as the 300 places for International Representatives, there will be 100 Open Places for any interested Friends, and 250 places for Friends from Peru and Bolivia to attend the open weekend. A lively video made by Peruvian Friends was shown. T shirts were for sale and donations were being sought to enable local Young Friends attend the Gathering.

We heard how meticulous Quaker minutes and certificates, census returns, tithe and tax records, had enabled the tracing of the Starr Quaker family, who left from near Dromantine in the 17th/18th century to settle in America. We were educated and entertained by a preview of a play based on the life of a Conscientious Objector during the First World War.

Our YM Youth Coordinator reported five years of lots of fun, while doing valuable work in building relationships, fellowship and leadership skills with our Young Friends. Some YFs are participating in discussions on ‘Preparing for Ministry in Meeting.’ Personal Bible study of early Friends helped to equip them to speak in Meeting. Early Friends read the books in Quaker libraries rather than just looking at them! As we rest in God’s spirit, so His spirit rests in us.  JYM attendances are rising and reports of their weekend were enthusiastic. They were encouraged to find nonviolent responses to challenging situations and in campaigns they might support. Revision of IYM Child Protection Guidelines is nearly complete and will now include a section on social media. It is hoped the Guidelines will be launched this June and they could become available on Kindle.

On Sunday we moved to Bessbrook Meeting for our closing session and Meeting for Worship. A short video gave us the history of the 19th century building and featured some of the current Members. The Recording Clerk was not to be seen as we settled for the session. A local Friend, she had driven a shorter way to Bessbrook, and on her way had spotted a ewe on its back in a field. Our Friend climbed over the field gate, twice pulled the sheep to its feet, but as the animal was too weak to stand or feed its lamb, she contacted the land owner; on her arrival, she then resumed her Recording Clerk duties! Another friend had driven through snow coming from his home, to Meeting!

One Friend was taken aback on seeing all the cars outside Dromantine and was dismayed with our carbon footprint. Another said they were uncomfortable, after reminding us of the struggle for others, to find enough food and water, in many parts of the world. He recalled the warm welcome given to him by a family in Kenya, when there for the Gathering in 2012. YM agreed to send a letter of sympathy to Kenyan Friends, who have lost some of their members in the recent terrorist attack.

In conclusion, while we had eaten 10 fruit cakes by Friday evening, the artichokes remained unsold on the IQFA stall! There were wood turned items for sale and lovely knitting and crotchet items too. ‘Quaker Service’ red carrier bags were eye catching and also for sale. The Quaker Books on sale looked colourful and attractive. We agreed we were ‘content’ with the minutes, and I think we were, also, with the Yearly Meeting as a whole. However, ‘I can’t hear what you are saying because of all the words’, said a Friend……… We must let our lives speak.

Ulster Quarterly Meeting Report Sept 2014

Ulster Quarterly Meeting September 2014

Thirty Friends and attenders attended Ulster Quarterly Meeting held at the Moyallon Centre on September 20th.

“Where there is NO VISION the people perish”

This was the comment of one Friend at the end of the report on the Moyallon Centre.

Ten years ago, despite some grave doubts by a number of Friends, a decision was taken to redevelop the Centre. This decision was enthusiastically supported by many especially YOUNG Friends. But now, ten years on, we heard that the Centre is much appreciated, hosts a variety of groups as well as Friends, and has repaid all loans. In addition each year improvements been made including repainting, and acquisition of new furniture. So the vision for Moyallon has been realised.

Prior to this report, we had heard reports from several committees which were mostly positive.
Although Quaker Care shops have had a turn-down in income which brings into question their continuation. Perhaps some other fundraisers might be more productive.

One sad report came from Portadown Meeting which is to be laid down. After a two year struggle Friends feel that this must be done. The last Meeting for Worship will be held at Portadown Meeting on October 26, 2014. There is silver lining to this however as there are several Meetings within a five mile radius of Portadown.

We were asked to bring the work and need for donations of QCEA to our meetings.

The report from Ulster Friends’ Trustees contained news of a considerable rise in the value of the investments. This includes a quite large holding in Royal Dutch Shell. Some present felt that Shell’s record on human rights and environmental management runs contrary to our Testament on Equality and our duty of care for the Environment.

There ensued a lively discussion on the Ethical Principles which guide Friends’ Trustees Policy on investments. It was noted that many concerned church bodies and educational establishments, among others, have decided to divest of investments in non-renewable energy companies.
The Chair of the Trustees suggested that a small group, representing the three Monthly Meetings of UQM might meet with the trustees to discuss these matters. Six names were brought forward.

In the afternoon there was a lively presentation and discussion of Statistics, which highlighted many anomalies in our Meetings, including the number of attenders/Members and difficulties in finding Friends to serve on committees.

Brid Coady Weekes.
South Belfast Meeting.

Reclaiming the Christian Message

This is the text of a public lecture delivered by Julia Ryberg at Ireland Yearly Meeting of The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers)  held in Cork, Ireland on the 26th of July 2013

 I was 26, mother of three little children and distraught with complexities of life. It was a summer’s day in the Colorado Rocky Mountains. I stood alone in a grove of mountain birch and wept. I was not yet aware of anything I called God. I called out to someone to help me. And someone answered me.  ‘I am with you. I will help you.’ I don’t know if the words came from within or from without, but a relationship began that day. More than 30 years have passed, and this talk will be about that relationship.

Thank you for this invitation to speak. It gives me an opportunity to remember, take stock and challenge myself. What can I say, today? It feels special to speak here this evening for several  reasons. First, Quaker ancestors on my father’s side emigrated to America from Grange Quaker Meeting in 1741. I have a connection with Ireland—not only a historical one, but also one of being tenderly upheld and welcomed by the body of Irish Friends. Second, Irish Quakers represent a theological spectrum within which my own journey of faith has moved. Your diversity—and how you love each other in it—is important to me. Furthermore, in the audience are guests from other churches, reminding me of significant ecumenical experiences I have had. And finally, in the audience there may be listeners who would call themselves seekers—of a faith, of a faith community—and perhaps something of my experience will speak to your condition. I hope that each of you will hear something that resonates within you. I hope that each of you will allow yourselves to be challenged. I hope that I offend no one. To aid the listening, I will pause for a minute of silent reflection a few times during my talk.

At 26, I identified as Quaker more by heritage than anything else. My family has been actively and influentially Quaker on all sides for many generations. I had a liberal Quaker upbringing that focused more on Quaker practise, pedagogy and peace work than on issues of faith. Some of my relatives were pastoral Quakers, evangelical Quakers…there was an ‘otherness’ about them that made me a bit uncomfortable. My knowledge of the Christian tradition was very sketchy. At Quaker boarding school ten years earlier, there had been a wave of Christian revival that I experienced as arrogant, divisive and exclusive. If anything, being Christian was something that gave me negative associations. Until I was 26, issues of faith were really not on my radar screen.

Things changed suddenly with this first spiritual opening. I felt as if I had been caught up in a net, rescued from drowning in my life drama. I was infatuated with, pre-occupied with whomever it was that had spoken. I called it God and I somehow associated it with Jesus. A Catholic friend guided me to the writings of Teresa of Avila and John of the Cross. I read hungrily. I read Brother Lawrence and Thomas Kelly. I felt Jesus close to me and longed for his total presence in me. Perhaps the infatuation was an escape from the challenges in my life at that time. Whatever the case, the condition lasted for a number of years. It filled me and helped me. It also embarrassed me. I did not talk much about it. I did not want to be a ‘Jesus freak’. Ambivalence found me turning the Jesus button off and on. Ambivalence has been a significant part of these 30 years and is probably what this talk is actually about.

I had married into a Swedish Quaker family and moved to Sweden at 20. My father-in-law was a charismatic wordsmith. However, I could only appreciate his writings years after his death. The day after his funeral in 1986, five years after my first spiritual opening, I travelled to a two-week ecumenical Bible course that he had encouraged me to attend. He had equipped me with a beautiful gilded Bible. I hadn’t the vaguest notion of how to use it. I was the only Quaker at the course. There was a lot of praise singing, speaking in tongues, laying on of hands, vocal prayer and hours of Bible study. What I mostly remember is the crucifix on the wall of my bedroom. It bothered me. I wanted Jesus, but I didn’t want the crucifix. I debated whether to take it down. It stayed on the wall, but it burned in me every time I looked at it. I also remember feeling excited and comforted by the religious expression of the other course participants, although I could not join in with the praise singing and remain true to myself. I explained, and the others respected my Quaker silence. The singing and praise washed through me and over me. Prayerful hands were laid on me. It was rich and real. This was another turning point.

The early 1990s found me teaching languages and social studies at the local men’s prison. I was expecting our youngest child during that period. It seemed that having a pregnant teacher somehow softened and deepened the discourse in class. The inmates’ conversation often turned to the meaning of life, to matters of faith, of having missed the mark in their roles as fathers, of hopes to do better. It seemed that my faith, diffuse as it was, was entering my professional life and that I needed to do something intentional about it. This coincided with Swedish Friends asking me to serve the Yearly Meeting. I have worked for Quakers since then. Since then, when anyone has asked about what I do for a living, I have needed to say something about my community of faith and my understanding of faith, and the questions ‘Where do I belong?’ and ‘What do I believe?’ keep needing to be answered.

In 1995 there was a dramatic turn of events. I had been feeling a bit restless for some months, perhaps a bit dry and doubtful about the whole God-thing. Unexpectedly on August 1, when I was in a meditative state, I suddenly experienced a bright and powerful light moving from outside me and coursing through my body from head to toe. It was overwhelming. It did not involve any religious language, images or emotions. It was simply an overwhelming and awe-filled experience of a powerful light. My immediate response has remained since that day: ‘Now I know that God is real, active, transcendent and immanent. I do not have to wonder ever again. I need no more proof. This is no longer about belief. It is about knowing.’ Now, you might think, things would be smooth sailing after that. On the contrary, it put me on a new and challenging course.

The experience of light, free as it was from any religious elements, was universal in nature. I understood that similar experiences are recounted in many faith traditions and outside faith traditions. Yet for me, it was the ultimate proof of the existence of God. It seemed that no sooner had God become thoroughly real for me than Jesus began nagging at me: ‘Hey, what about me? Who do you say I am?’  Now it seemed that the abstract was asking to be clothed, to be made particular, to become embodied. I found myself less concerned with the nature of God and more focused on the phenomenon of Jesus Christ. How was he connected with the experience of the light that had affected me so fundamentally?

The experience fuelled my life for many years. It held me under the arms when I served the local Lutheran church as chairperson of the parish board for five years. There was a painful conflict around a controversial vicar, and I had been given a political mandate to remove him from his position. I became deeply involved in the structures, the culture and the liturgy of the Lutheran Church of Sweden. That is when my Christian education really began, and the questions that arose during that time have continued to engage me. Working actively to remove a vicar proved to be a trial by fire. As chairperson, I had to use worldly tools of lobbying and majority rule—so different from Quaker decision making! As a woman and Quaker, I was controversial in challenging an ordained clergyman’s appropriateness for his office. I remember attending mass one Sunday. The vicar was calling the congregation to come forward for communion. ‘Come, all is ready.’ But I was in conflict with him. How could I rise and go forward? Yet not taking part seemed an act of betrayal. In deep distress I called out inwardly to Jesus. ‘Help me! What would you do?’ Immediately, I was brought to my feet. Beyond all worldly conflict between our roles and views, the vicar and I shared a common humanity and we were there to honour the memory of Jesus. The five years of service were a significant piece of spiritual and personal development for me.

The August 1 experience had other far-reaching implications. I made some life-changing choices. Among others, I followed a calling to study. I considered, very briefly, studying for the Lutheran clergy, but how could I leave my Quaker context? How could I serve under a formulated creed?  I wanted to learn about Quakerism, Christianity, church history. I wanted to study the Bible. I wanted to gain some understanding of what my future ministry might be. The result was seven years with Earlham School of Religion, the Quaker seminary in the USA, in a combination of on-site and online studies. Sweden Yearly Meeting supported me throughout the process.

During seminary, I became acquainted with the life of Swedish Quaker Emilia Fogelklou. She was born in 1878. She writes about a lesson in Christianity, when she was around 8 years of age. The teacher was talking about George Fox, the founder of Quakerism, who was under the delusion that he could be guided by an ‘inner light’ that was within each person. Little Emilia piped up: ‘I am suffering from that same delusion.’ She became a writer, mystic, educator, peace worker during two world wars, women’s rights advocate, and one of the ‘mothers’ of Sweden Yearly Meeting when it was founded in 1936. Although I never met her, Emilia’s words and life story have helped me grapple with the Christian tradition. When she was 23, and deeply depressed, Emilia had a transformative experience she called her Revelation of Reality. In order to understand what had happened to her, she studied theology and became the first woman in Sweden to take a degree in theology, in 1909.  She describes her transformative experience in the third person: But one bright day of spring – the 29th of May 1902 – when she sat preparing a lesson amongst the trees behind Föreningsgatan 6, there occurred quite silently, invisibly, the central event of her whole life. Without sight or sound of speech or human touch, she experienced in a state of exceptionally clear consciousness the great releasing inner wonder. It was as though the ’empty shell’ broke. All burden and anguish, the whole sense of unreality melted away. She felt living goodness, joy, light like an irradiatingly clear, uplifting, enfolding unquestionable reality from deep within. The first words that came to her – after a long time – were: this is the great Mercy, this is God. Nothing is as real as this….Within herself she knew, without priest or book, how God finds a person and bestows life and freedom and light. The New Testament opened up from within. She understood that what had happened to her was possible for everyone.  It was part of human life. She recognized glimpses of it in the churches and the sects, but for herself she did not require so much ‘wrapping paper around God,’ not so many repetitions of the same thoughts and words, as if God were deaf or forgetful or reluctant to listen.

Because the August 1 experience was so universal in nature, I felt at liberty to image and relate to God in ways that were meaningful to me. I rejoice at the words of another early Swedish Quaker, Elin Wägner, as she expresses a similar sense of liberty. I have written and said, innumerable times, that Quakers maintain that God dwells in each person. A long time ago it suddenly occurred to me that, in that case, he also dwells in me. But now I knew what I had done with him. Tied his hands and feet, put him on a starvation diet, refused to speak to the prisoner while throwing into the astronomers’ universe a cry of desperation and doubt to some strangely distant and apathetic God. But now he had become free, made himself free or perhaps I had set him free. And then he was able to answer, that poor gagged God.

During the years of seminary study, the framework of the Christian faith became clearer. I understood that there were certain beliefs and doctrines that were central to Christianity, without which one could hardly be a ‘proper’ Christian. You might think that I could have simply not worried about it, given myself a quasi-Christian, or perhaps a universalist Quaker identity and gotten on with life. This was not possible, because—as I said earlier—Jesus was simply not letting me alone.

I struggled with the resurrection, with the exclusive claims of Christianity, with the notion of the Trinity, with the creeds, with the incarnation, with the concept of sin, with how the historical Jesus is related to the Christ of faith. I struggled with the violence and patriarchy of the Old Testament—did I need to relate to those writings at all? I haven’t even begun to struggle with the atonement. How could I possibly call myself a Christian, given that I had trouble with pretty much all of it? And did it really matter? Couldn’t I simply be a committed Quaker without coming to terms with all of the above? Many of my Quaker Friends had just let the whole Christianity thing go…as too laden with history and baggage. I could certainly identify with that! I couldn’t let it go.

It then dawned on me that there are many ways of being Christian, just as there are many ways of being Muslim and Jewish and Hindu and Buddhist. There are many ways of being Universalist. And I have seen the Christ-like life modelled in many people of other faith traditions and none. I had a growing sense, and a growing frustration, that others—an undefined mass called mainstream Christians—seemed to have reserved the right to define what it is to be Christian. I was not prepared to answer ‘No’ to the question whether I was a Christian, but I was not prepared to answer ‘Yes’ without understanding what kind of a Christian I was. It was not going to be an easy or neat journey.

I remember reading a book for seminary studies. It was a history of the different roles that Jesus has been assigned through the centuries—almost as if he had been a paper doll and given different costumes in order to serve cultural, political, social and economic purposes. What a revelation! Which Jesus was I relating to? How have the many manifestations of Jesus affected me, a 21st century Swedish-American Quaker woman? I felt drawn to find the naked, unadorned Jesus, the one behind all the costumes and roles assigned him. Who was he? What did he say? Emilia’s words again: Poor Jesus. If we would only worship him a little less and listen to him a little more.

Finding him, listening to him, means reading the Gospels. I wanted to know the true version. I wanted to know what he really said, and wondered if I couldn’t simply cut and paste the words of Jesus—printed red in so many Bibles—into one document and skip the rest that seemed so inconsistent. I learned about the Jesus Seminar in this context, about the theologians who were studying the Gospels to determine degrees of likelihood that words attributed to Jesus really were uttered by him. And it was both distressing and liberating to me to fully understand that the red texts are not direct quotes and that factual truth is hard to find. I began to understand at a deep level that the Gospels—and indeed all the books of the Bible— are themselves human attempts to make sense of a mystery. The fact that there needs to be several inconsistent versions of the Gospel is not a weakness but attests to the mysterious nature of events that have continued to engage, challenge, nourish people for over 2000 years. It is the same story told through several different lenses—remembered, edited, translated and interpreted throughout the centuries in a rich and often bitter  brew of language, culture and politics.

I continued reading one of the Jesus Seminar theologians, Marcus Borg. His writings, and meeting him in Stockholm last November, have helped me considerably. His book Meeting Jesus Again for the First Time was enlightening, and the title intrigued me. Seeing again, for the first time, suggests that we can return with new eyes, new insight, to something—or someone—precious to us, challenging or disturbing to us and see that something, or someone, in a new light. I understood that  I could re-visit my understandings thus far of the Christian tradition. I became aware of the baggage that I had, even though I had not been given an explicitly Christian upbringing. I had quite a bit of baggage simply by virtue of living in a culture that is based on Christian values—although I believe it has distorted what it is to be a person of faith and a follower of Jesus. And I do not need to let the distortions define my faith!

I came to realize that I was probably being a faithful Quaker. Throughout the centuries, Quakers have questioned outer authority in the light of firsthand experience. I felt a growing confidence in my messy, inconsistent seeking after a way to identify as a Christian with my integrity and intelligence intact. Early Quakers had re-discovered primitive Christianity, and the word ‘primitive’ here doesn’t mean a less refined version. It means the version that existed before too many people began messing too much with a good idea—and using it to gain power over others. So, although Quakers are prepared to question outer authority, we also consistently test firsthand experience in the light of tradition. In other words, there is the understanding that continuing revelation will not be inconsistent with a living tradition. This begs the question, What continues to be life-giving in our tradition—both the Quaker and the Christian? And what, on the other hand, might we be holding onto that needs reviewing? The origin of the word ‘tradition’  means both a passing on of something and a betrayal of something. Tradition can be something that grounds us and gives us sustenance. It can also be something that keeps us stuck and betrays the life-giving wellspring. Tradition is not something to be used as an argument for the status quo. It is something that should help us keep our eyes open, that opens us to the past, the present and the future all at once.

Emilia warned us about getting stuck: Systems of faith are like a gauge reading of what has been experienced, and as such they are greatly justified. But we must not get stuck in the past, but in every new situation wait for the current of life  from the one who said  ‘See, I am making all things new’. If Quakers do not do that, we are the poorest of all communities.

But my father-in-law, Sven Ryberg, warned us about abuse of freedom: The Society of Friends has an obliging history, but it is easy to take advantage of spiritual greatness of the past. We have no priests, no confessors, no dogmas or sacraments, nothing that can take us by the collar and hold us under our arms when we begun being sucked into the abyss. We are instead dangerously close to hubris, to self-indulgence, to snobbishness with our freedom, to spiritual sloth and to many, many excuses. We do not notice when we have sunk back from the the glimpse of reality, of truth that we once saw. Quaker freedom is a disastrous pitfall if it is not reclaimed every day from within.

It seems we must navigate between the extremes of getting stuck and losing our bearings.

In the past few years, God has become wider for me. God has become process more than an entity, more verb than noun. I learned of the concept, actually from Celtic spirituality, of ‘thin places’. These are the places, events, encounters, texts and music, where the membrane, the veil, between our everyday reality and the ultimate reality, God, seems to become very thin and we sense that the two realities become one. This resonates with the Quaker understanding that all of life is sacramental. As God became increasingly both more abstract and more present, I found it harder to relate to God. I began to wonder if I was becoming a non-theist—at least I could understand those who are unable to relate to God as a ‘he—up there’, an absent parent, a distant judge. It wasn’t that kind of distance from God that I was experiencing. It was more like God simply becoming synonymous with life itself. How does a fish describe the water?

I was troubled recently by an example of the prevalent notion of God being a ‘he—up there’. Two little granddaughters were visiting and asked me about my work. I said I work for God. They looked at me in disbelief. The elder one asked, ‘You mean him, up there?’ pointing vaguely to the sky. ‘Do you really believe in him, Grandmother?’ I tried to find words for the thinness of life, the  sense of being permeated and loved by something very close to me. I asked if they understood, and they nodded in recognition. The younger child asked if I believed in Jesus, if I believed that he had climbed up to heaven to be with God after he had died. Again, I tried to express a sense of belonging to rather than believing in, of not knowing what actually happened back then, but knowing that there is deep truth in it all; of the fact that people can still be very much alive within us even though they have died—like the memory we have of great grandmother who is no longer with us. I asked if they understood, and they nodded in recognition. I was saddened that, already, these secularised little ones have not been given a working relationship between the awesome wonder of life and a living faith tradition. Emilia wrote:  God may no longer be held captive in heaven, like in a beautiful blue stone to create legends about. It wants to be released alive out of this prison, whose walls people have perhaps needed for their great fear. It wants to descend from heaven as quality in the life of the world.

As God seemed to become more diffuse, Jesus came again into sharper focus. But I realized that my struggles with doctrine had subsided. Like Emilia, I do not need so much ‘wrapping paper around God.’ Or around Jesus.  I have finally claimed the right to call myself Christian, in my way. I feel empowered and at liberty to interpret Christian doctrine and Scripture in ways that help me navigate my life. If we had time, I could tell you what the resurrection and the Trinity mean to me, and I could tell you how I understand John 14:6 (where Jesus says that no one comes to God but through him) in a way that makes perfect sense to me—without suggesting any exclusive Christian claim to enlightenment or connection with God. You might think that things would be smooth sailing at last. Not a chance. Jesus is not letting me alone.

Perhaps it was the enlightening and disturbing study tour, organised by the Quaker Council for European Affairs, to Palestine and Israel. Perhaps it was being challenged and excited during the World Conference last year by all that other Quakers are doing to help mend the world. Perhaps it was closely following the American presidential race and realizing how much was at stake. Perhaps it was listening to Marcus Borg speak in Stockholm about the Kingdom of God—saying that the message of Jesus is about opening our hearts to embrace and work for God’s dream for a world of compassion and justice. Quakers have always maintained that heaven is here and now, but still waiting to come. But had I not become a bit complacent, thriving in my little plot of heaven, leading retreats and serving Friends in various ministries? Could I honestly say that I am living the radical message of Jesus, actively working to build the Kingdom of God? And to what extent is my faith community living the radical message of Jesus, regardless of how we as individuals understand and relate to him? Emilia reminds us that the inner light is not a possession. Perhaps we have only have an empty candlestick left. We do not notice that our journey no longer follows the light of life, but has become the holy legacy of a whitewashed tomb.

Looking back, my relationship with God has been relatively uncomplicated. My relationship with Jesus has been more complex. I have gone from ignoring him to being in love with him to trying to figure him out and now to saying, ‘OK. I’m yours. What can I help you with?’ While obsessing over this talk, trying to make sense of these 30 years, it occurred to me that perhaps I am not as much the initiator of this relationship as I had thought. Perhaps I have been claimed by God, by the Spirit, by the light of life, by the Living Christ that was fully present in Jesus. I think of the story of Jesus beginning his ministry by creating a community around him. He found some ordinary guys to follow him. Maybe I am an ordinary gal that has been found to follow him.  And I am re-claimed, over and over, as I stumble and fall and forget. I am lifted up by God. I am lifted up by God through the body that is my faith community.

My father-in-law told of an elderly British Friend who wrote to him: Christianity is not a theory to discuss or a problem to solve. It is a life to live, a person to love.’ Perhaps the Christian message is not some words that we agree, or disagree, about. Perhaps it is we, as individuals and faith communities, who are called to be the message—called to witness to the Light of life with our lives. Perhaps the incarnation is about the Word becoming flesh in us, claiming us and using us as instruments of compassion, justice, peace. I no longer want to be asked ‘How are you doing?’ but rather ‘How are you growing?’ I no longer want the first question about my Quaker Meeting to be how many members it has, but rather how Truth is prospering among us and how well we love each other.

I want to belong to Jesus in my messy, inconsistent way. I want my way to be his way. I want my story to resonate with his. I want my vision to be the one he was passionate about—which is not a vision that is exclusively Christian.  It isn’t his fault that people tend to get stuck in the wrapping paper. Even if it turns out the the whole story is fiction, it is still powerful enough to change the world—and our lives.

Thank you for listening to my story. I wish I could listen to each of yours. God is at work in each of us in diverse and unique ways. We grow by sharing with each other.